It may have taken this year's initial production, "Romeo and Juliet," to help the new artistic director find his footing, but the confident, assured and entertaining version of Shaw's "Caesar and Cleopatra" that Des McAnuff has mounted as the final show of this year's Stratford Shakespeare Festival season proves not only that he deserves the job but that it would be in everyone's best interests if he hangs around a long time.
It may have taken this year’s initial production, “Romeo and Juliet,” to help the new artistic director find his footing, but the confident, assured and entertaining version of Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra” that Des McAnuff has mounted as the final show of this year’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival season proves not only that he deserves the job but that it would be in everyone’s best interests if he hangs around a long time.The production crackles with energy from its first moment, and McAnuff’s direction keeps it driving along until the final curtain. Splendid fights, breathtaking aerial sequences and even some toplessness for Cleopatra’s handmaidens are all part of the hyper-theatricality. Yet just as impressive as McAnuff’s Technicolor, Cinemascope take on this early Shaw comedy is Christopher Plummer’s performance as the aged but astute Roman leader. Longtime Stratford vet Plummer is 78, and although his advancing years are an important part of his characterization, he belies them with the vitality displayed at every turn. Plummer earns a laugh with every witty line Shaw has given him, but when he gets into the play’s darker, more political sections, he knows how to make that great cello of a voice throb with emotional intensity. By being generous to every actor with whom he shares the stage, Plummer displays true star quality, particularly in the performance he helps elicit from Nikki M. James as Cleopatra. James was generally regarded as a disappointment when she opened the season as Juliet, but she’s grown a lot as a performer since then and also seems far more comfortable as a Shavian minx than as a Shakespearean heroine. McAnuff has supported his two leads with some of the best talent Stratford has to offer. Peter Donaldson specializes in bluff, rugged military types, but he’s never delivered one as effective as his Rufio here. Cagey yet honest, wily yet forthright, Donaldson’s Rufio is a perfect living realization of what the world of realpolitik means. Diane D’Aquila makes something fine and funny out of Ftatateeta, Cleopatra’s nurse, putting all her considerable pride into her name and spitting out her scorn at those who mispronounce it with more hissing venom than any cobra. And Steven Sutcliffe is a charming and ingratiating Britannus, imbuing the potentially cartoonish role of Caesar’s secretary with great humanity without losing any of its humor. Robert Brill’s sets are a stunning assortment of pillars and arches that keep finding new configurations, while Paul Tazewell’s costumes are vivid and striking. Plummer’s last appearance at Stratford in 2002 as King Lear was successfully transplanted to Broadway at the Vivian Beaumont. There’s no reason to assume this crowd-pleasing production couldn’t follow the same path even more successfully. It has “hit” written all over it.